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Beyond Tokenism: What’s next for women’s political leadership in Africa?

  • JASS

We’re definitely proud that Africa now leads the way in women’s political representation globally. From President Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic to newly-appointed Vice President Inonge Wina of Zambia and the Namibian prime minister and deputy prime minister duo of Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila and Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, women are taking on big leadership positions. While the optics are inspiring and important markers of change, without accompanying and sustained efforts to change sexist attitudes and the power structures that perpetuate them, progress will only be symbolic.

We need to shift the debate from focusing on token representation to transformation. As author and activist at the Institute for Development Studies, Mariz Tadros puts it, “The way in which politics has become reduced to women in legislatures has actually done us a lot of harm because ‘politics’ is well beyond that.” With the African Union declaring 2015 “The Year of Women’s Empowerment”, it’s clear that women’s visible leadership is high on the agenda but  will this really translate into a change in how power is used?  What are the kinds of strategies needed to enable women who are elected or appointed to serve as change agents to the benefit of women and equality agendas?  

The Stats

Rwanda,  Africa’s long standing shining example of women’s participation in politics recorded an unprecedented 64% majority of women in parliament’s chamber of deputies. Yet one in three Rwandese women, who make up 52% of Rwanda’s 11 million-strong population, has experienced or continues to experience violence at the hands of her male relatives. According to Rwanda’s Gender Desk in 2011, 93% of the victims of physical and psychological abuse were women. On top of that, women’s gains in formal political representation often “mask [the] ongoing difficulties” women face in terms of participation in other decision-making positions outside of parliament. As author and activist at the Institute for Development Studies, Mariz Tadros puts it, “The way in which politics has become reduced to women in legislatures has actually done us a lot of harm because ‘politics’ is well beyond that.”

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, women represent 22.2% of parliamentarians across all chambers, and in Africa, 11 single or lower houses of assembly are composed of more than 30% women. While these appointments should be celebrated as the achievements they are, the statistics tell a different story for the efficacy of a strategy that prioritizes visible leadership without going strategies to change deeply-entrenched attitudes and practices that perpetuate gender inequality, discrimination and violence against women.

The absence of effective women’s movements is one of the biggest challenges facing the gender structures in Africa. This deficiency has meant that the push for the substantive transformation of gender relations and institutions is weak. Coalitions and networks have done sterling work but a Women’s Movement (in the classical sense of social movements) would make the push stronger. ~Pethu Serote, Women’s Rights Activist, South Africa

Celebrating with caution…

Zambian women’s rights activists are celebrating the unprecedented appointment of Inonge Wina to the vice presidency: “This is the first time we’ve had a woman who’s a president and I think the appointment is very timely,” says activist-journalist Sally Chiwama. “She’s powerful, capable, and she deserves that appointment because she has worked hard. I think a lot of people are really happy with this appointment as well.

For me it’s an opportunity for women to see women involved in politics and involved in decision making. For now she’s one of the key leaders and it’s good that she’s in that position. ~Amos Mwale, Centre for Reproductive Health Education

While in Namibia, both Kuugongelwa-Amadhila and Nandi-Ndaitwah have served in high-level strategic positions as finance minister and foreign minister respectively, and represent the fruits of a “quiet revolution” in Namibian politics over the last five years.  In 2014, the Namibian government proposed the “zebra system”—a gender equality quota designed to ensure that more women are in positions of power. But many wonder whether the zebra system is merely a stop-gap measure to silence the pressure to make good on promises of gender equality while also excluding women from key leadership positions.

A “glass cliff” or something else?

Activists are asking how these important markers of progress can be translated into effective leadership by women as well as have meaningful impact on women’s lives. Women in positions of leadership often face obstacles on many fronts, from harassment, discrimination and violence to corruption and exclusion from policy-shaping debate due to the fact that they are women. And speaking up about women’s rights only marginalizes them further from the center of debates.  Furthermore, without the support and backing of grounded and vocal constituencies, women policymakers are often disconnected from the voices and experiences of the women they represent.

The “glass cliff”—a relatively new metaphor to explain how women in corporations are often given a chance at leadership only in a crisis when no one else is willing to step in. It easily applies to some of the many challenges women politicians face in gaining and holding office. “Once you go into that political arena it’s not just women who are exposed, it’s men as well,” asserts Mariz Tadros, “Especially if they don’t have prior experience in politics and they’re not coming from the strongest of positions economically, for example, if they’re poor and come from minority [communities].”

In order to survive the game of politics, women need to think strategically.

“We need to go beyond just having women in [formal] spaces. The truth is, I would mobilize against having more women in parliament if these women are advancing an anti-feminist agenda.… As a strategy I would much rather support coalition with alliances that fight for a gender justice outcome.” ~Mariz Tadros, Institute for Development Studies

A broader understanding of ‘politics’

“We need stronger movements as much as we need the women sitting in parliament stamping laws and putting the legislature in place—change cannot happen without both,” says Katswe Sistahood’s Nancy Chabuda. JASS’ approach to transformative change prioritizes what Tadros calls a “broader understanding of politics.” This kind of politics acknowledges both the value of women achieving high political office and making up the numbers in parliaments as well as the critical importance of movements and activist organizing on the ground to change hearts and minds, hold decisionmakers to account and provide a critical mass for sustainable change. Change demands inside (more women in office and lobbying) and outside (direct action, communications, mobilizations) strategies working in unison to pressure for change.

Zambian activists are mobilizing to do just that: “We are calling for a consultative meeting within civil society on women’s issues to see if we can develop one voice and one agenda,” says Amos Mwale, director of JASS Southern Africa ally, the Centre for Reproductive Health Education. While activists understand that Vice President Wina’s job will be an uphill climb they are not prepared to be silent or patient, and are taking the initiative to put women on the agenda and bring the power of their constituencies to bear. 


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